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Five Things You Need to Know: Grim Chart Shows Unemployed Face Long, Difficult Road


The duration of unemployment is now the longest in measured history.


1. Grim Chart Shows Unemployed Face Long, Difficult Road

You know the numbers. Nine-point-one percent unemployment. And Friday's jobs report showed we added 54,000 jobs in May, a bizarre number that is even worse when you factor in the even more bizarre Birth-Death adjustment which renders the entire report a virtually unreadable non sequitur. Bloomberg's Richard Yamarone notes that at this pace it would take more than 10 years to recoup the nearly 7 million jobs lost during the most recent recession. But wait, things get even worse.

The chart below shows the average duration in weeks of unemployment dating back to 1948 when record-keeping began.

In case you may be employed, and thus wondering why even after an economic recovery of sorts things still feel so bad, this chart helps explain why. The average duration of unemployment is nearly twice as long as the worst period in measured history. That's right, twice. Not just a little bit longer, but twice as long.

This chart is not just about the economy, however. As Yamarone points out, "In the U.S., you are identified by what you do for a living. When you meet someone, the first question asked is, what's your name? The second, what do you do? If you don't have a response to the latter, the results can be socially debilitating."

2. A Double Surge for Double Dip

Given the above, it's fairly easy to see why so many of us have "double dip" on our minds. The chart below run through Google (GOOG) analytics shows search volume for "double dip" has surged for a second time in as many years, now outpacing the prior search spike when it seemed we were on the verge of falling back into recession.

3. Why Fears About Municipal Defaults Are Overblown

Meredith Whitney's prediction of a vast wave of municipal bond defaults continues to come under scrutiny (some would say under fire) as state and local economies continue to stagger along, battered, wounded, but still upright and staggering nonetheless. Of course, while some are content to say Whitney simply got it wrong, things are rarely black and white in financial markets. An interesting paper from Daniel Bergstresser and Randolph Cohen of Harvard Business School argues that Whitney was indeed correct in her prediction of hundreds of municipal defaults, it's just the magnitude of the defaults failed to materialize as expected.

From the white paper's summary:

  • In 2009 municipal issuers defaulted on 178 individual bond issues. The aggregate face value of the defaulted issues was $3.5 Billion. In 2010 issuers defaulted on 75 municipal bond issues, with an aggregate face value of $1.7 Billion.
  • The municipal credit market is a $2.5 Trillion market.
  • Thus the prediction of hundreds of municipal defaults has already been realized. Losses have amounted to a tiny fraction of market value.

The paper's conclusion is that the doomsday scenario is already priced in with the MCDX 5-year index spread (at year-end, when data for the paper was assembled) projecting a 7 percent annual default rate and market spreads consistent with nearly 30 percent of municipal issuers going into default through 2014.

"In sum, fears of widespread municipal default are overblown," the authors write. "Although spreads have tightened somewhat since December, doomsday scenarios have already been incorporated into market prices. While there is a good chance that negative investor sentiment will lead to further spread widening, the probability of the kind of widespread default that would be required to justify current municipal bond yields is low."

4. Local Government Employment Declining as States Cut Back

Based on all of the above you might think that, doomsday scenario aside, local governments are in a precarious situation right now. And you'd be right. Employment at local governments is now at its lowest point in five years as municipalities slash payrolls to help balance budgets. This is significant because local governments provide 11 percent of all U.S. jobs, according to Bloomberg.

In addition, state tax collections are 11 percent below their peak, according to a March 9 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But it gets even worse. Not only are states cutting payrolls to balance budgets, they're cutting services too. States are also cutting cash assistance to families with children, specifically through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cuts, the CPBB reports. California, Washington, South Carolina, and New Mexico and the District of Columbia have cut monthly cash assistance benefits for TANF families. And Michigan is slashing its refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (which is partially funded with TANF funds) by two-thirds.

Why now? According to CPBB, the upcoming fiscal year 2012 is expected to be one of the worst on record. "Some 44 states and the District of Columbia are projecting budget shortfalls totaling $112 billion for 2012. States have responded to these fiscal pressures by making deep cuts in many education and human service programs, including TANF."

TANF caseload increases were unevenly spread during the recession, with the western states seeing the sharpest increases.

5. Warren Buffett Lunch Reaches Record Price of $1.51 Million

On the bright side, over on eBay (EBAY) you can still pony up more than the current bid of $1.51 million to have a "power lunch" lunch with Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B) exec Warren Buffett. The auction is to benefit San Francisco's GLIDE, which works to eliminate poverty in San Franscisco. The auction ends June 10, 2011 at 7:30 PM PDT. Hey, free shipping!

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